Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year 2012!

2011 has been a pretty lousy year in many ways, and 2012 may not be much better: but we still have our lives and our sacred honor, even if our fortunes may be distinctly less than optimum, economically speaking! Let's hope and pray that the New Year will bring blessings to balance the difficulties, and light to dispel the darkness.

A blessed, happy and prosperous New Year to all of you, my friends. Party safe out there tonight!


Some very interesting music

I'm not a follower of reality TV, or of entertainment shows such as America's Got Talent. However, Lindsey Stirling, a violinist who competed in a recent season of the latter program, came to my attention when I stumbled across this performance during a recent survey of YouTube videos. She calls it 'Spontaneous Me'.

That's some remarkable playing! My first thought on watching it was that I know people who 'talk with their hands' - they're always gesticulating and making shapes with their hands and fingers as they speak. If you were to tie or otherwise immobilize their hands, they'd find it much harder to express themselves. I couldn't help but wonder whether Ms. Stirling's playing would suffer from a similar handicap if you tied her feet together!

Intrigued by this piece, I looked for more of her work. This meditative performance, 'River Flows In You', also caught my eye - and my ear.

There's more of her music on her YouTube channel, and at her Web site (where you can check her blog for more information about her songs). Interesting listening - not all of it to my taste, but all of it refreshing and 'different' in her approach. Recommended.


Are online vendors targeting drunk shoppers?

An article in the Sydney Morning Herald suggests they are. Here's an excerpt.

Online retailers ... can never be sure whether customers are inebriated when they tap the "checkout" icon. One comparison-shopping site, Kelkoo, said almost half the people it surveyed in Britain, where it is based, had shopped online after drinking.

But while reliable data is hard to come by, retailers say they have their suspicions based on anecdotal evidence and traffic patterns on their websites - and some are adjusting their promotions accordingly.

"Post-bar, inhibitions can be impacted, and that can cause shopping, and hopefully healthy impulse buying," said Andy Page, the president of Gilt Groupe, an online retailer that is adding more sales starting at 9 p.m. to respond to high traffic then - perhaps some of it by shoppers under the influence.

On eBay, the busiest time of day is from 6:30 to 10:30 in each time zone. Asked if drinking might be a factor, Steve Yankovich, vice president for mobile for eBay, said, "Absolutely." He added: "I mean, if you think about what most people do when they get home from work in the evening, it's decompression time. The consumer's in a good mood."

Nighttime shopping is growing overall. ChannelAdvisor, which runs e-commerce for hundreds of sites, says its order volumes peak about 8 p.m., and that shoppers are placing orders later and later. In 2011, the number of orders placed from 9 p.m. to midnight increased compared with previous years.

. . .

At QVC, the television shopping channel, traffic and viewers rise around noon, then quiet down until after 7 p.m. Then items like cosmetics and accessories sell briskly. "Call them girl treats — they seem to attract a really strong following once you get past dinnertime," said Doug Rose, senior vice president for multichannel programming and marketing for the company. "You can probably come to your own conclusion as to what's motivating her."

Still, the nighttime spike requires delicacy among retailers: For reasons of propriety, they do not want to be seen as encouraging drunken shopping, and many people who inadvertently buy products in that state would most likely return them at high rates. On the other hand, a happy customer can lead to higher sales.

There's more at the link.

I don't drink to excess, so I can't say this has ever been a problem for me: but looking at many young people today, who seem to think nothing of tossing back a few drinks most evenings, I can see it might be something a vendor would deliberately seek to exploit. Seems kinda seedy to me, but then, I'm old-fashioned that way . . .


Privacy software is worth using

I've been using ad-blocking and 'do-not-track' software for some months. It's been eye-opening to see just how many Web sites and software packages are trying to track what I'm doing and where I'm going on the Internet. Now an article in USA Today gives more details of the problem. Here's an excerpt.

Online tracking has been a privacy hot potato for more than a decade. The relentless collection, correlation and selling of tracking data take place to help advertisers deliver more relevant ads to individual Web users.

Online tracking undergirds the burgeoning online display ad market, which is expected to swell 36% to $34.4 billion by the end of 2012, up from $25.3 billion in 2011, according to online marketing firm Zenith Optimedia.

Yet, despite this growing mountain of tracking data and the free flow of advertising dollars, the delivery of behaviorally targeted ads continues to be clunky, at best, says Aleecia McDonald, a resident fellow at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society. "Ad practices like retargeting, where you click on a pair of shoes once, and ads for the shoes follow you around the Web, make people wonder how that could have happened," McDonald says.

Meanwhile, social networks and Web app developers are getting into the tracking game, exploring novel ways to derive fresh revenue from tracking data.

Facebook says it currently uses tracking data strictly to boost security and improve members' online experience. But it also has sought patent protection for technology that includes a method to correlate tracking data with advertisements.

These developments have heightened concerns about the co-mingling of sensitive information that consumers often naively disclose at many websites they visit. The Federal Trade Commission and several lawmakers took major steps in 2011 toward curbing how far companies can go to collect and share tracking data.

The FTC called for a Do Not Track mechanism that would enable Internet users to request not to be tracked. And Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., proposed a Do Not Track bill that would compel companies to heed such requests.

But tracking and online advertising companies lobbied intensively to maintain industry self-policing as the status quo. They've argued that unregulated tracking is necessary to help pay for free Web content and services that consumers have come to expect.

"Basic tracking of a user's displayed behavior is an effective way for publishers to earn more revenue for their ad space and for advertisers to see greater returns on their marketing spends," says Will Riegel, a New York City-based tracking data analyst.

As this debate extends into the new year, consumer backlash appears to be gaining grass-roots momentum. More and more average Web users, such as Doug Toombs, 25, a quality assurance engineer from Cambridge, Ontario, are discovering and using available anti-tracking technologies while the global privacy debate continues.

Toombs recently started using Do Not Track Plus and marveled at how the tool automatically blocked more than 13,000 attempts to track his online activities in the course of a few weeks. "Being able to counteract it (tracking) absolutely made me feel much better," Toombs says. "People need to fight back and not get bullied around by these big companies that think they can do anything they want."

. . .

Meanwhile, average consumers who've already figured out how to use the current anti-tracking tools say the trouble is well worth it.

William Morris, 55, a custom car restorer and home remodeler from Elk City, Okla., discovered that the performance of his older Windows XP desktop PC improved considerably once he curtailed the tracking communications constantly taking place in the background on his browser.

One evening, Morris spent two and a half hours researching a physics topic online, keeping an eye on the tally of tracking attempts blocked by Do Not Track Plus. The total: 4,076. "It's unbelievable that there are that many entities out there on the Internet poking their nose into whatever I'm doing," Morris says.

There's more at the link, including details of several of the better anti-tracking software solutions out there.

I use (and recommend) three free anti-tracking and ad-blocking programs: Adblock Plus, Ghostery and Do Not Track Plus. I also use the BetterPrivacy add-on for Firefox to delete so-called 'flash cookies'. I've found that no one package or program does the job completely, but by running these four in combination, I probably cover most of the threats out there.


Supermarkets and the business of supplying consumers

As part of my ongoing series of articles about emergency preparations, I've been looking into the food supply chain, and talking with a few people about what food-related topics need to be addressed in the series. To my surprise, it became clear that many people don't understand how they buy food now, never mind in preparation for an emergency! They've never stopped to think about how the food supply chain works, how supermarkets are designed, structured and laid out to entice us to spend our money, and so on. I thought it might be a good idea to cover those areas in an article, on general principles.

To begin with, let's take a look at the business of supermarkets, and the challenges confronting them from an organizational and management point of view. Here's a report from CNBC on Giant Eagle, a regional US supermarket chain. Its comments about that chain are, of course, applicable to most others across the country.

Other CNBC reports in their series 'Supermarkets Inc.' are available on YouTube.

Now let's turn to a British series that examines how supermarkets entice shoppers to buy their goods, and what's behind their wares. The series is somewhat anti-supermarket and pro-natural foods, but that's not necessarily a bad thing when you consider the evidence they offer! Here's the first part of the series to whet your appetite.

If you found that interesting, click on the links below for the rest of the series:

Then there's the whole field of 'supermarket psychology'. Here's an Australian program about how supermarkets display their goods and set themselves up to entice us to spend more than we intended to, on products we didn't intend to buy when we entered the place.

Again, there are more parts to this series on YouTube, as well as many related video clips. They make very interesting viewing.

I hope these reports have helped inform some readers, at least, of how the food supply channels work in modern urbanized society, whether in the USA, or Europe, or elsewhere. If those channels break down due to some disaster or other, we'll need emergency supplies of food to cope with the disruption. We'll begin to address that subject in the next article in my 'Emergency Preparations' series.


Friday, December 30, 2011

Daytime fireworks?

I'd never heard of firework displays in broad daylight, but apparently they're not that uncommon. Instead of exploding lights in the sky, they use colored smoke to create their visual impressions. Here's a video clip of a daytime fireworks display on the occasion of the opening of the Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar earlier this year.

The man behind the display, Chinese designer Cai Guo-Qiang, has produced several others. You'll find video clips of some of them on YouTube.


Of pensions, unions, politicians and corruption

You may have noticed a news story today about a Philadelphia councilwoman who's retiring for precisely 24 hours, in order to collect a pension check for almost half a million dollars, then will return to duty for her next term of office. Sound corrupt to you? Maybe . . . but it's nevertheless legal, according to Philadelphia's municipal statutes and regulations.

If this sounds unbelievable to you, too insanely nonsensical to be real, rest assured it's by no means the only example. Remember the protests against Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and his plans to rein in the power of education unions in that state? That's why the unions were unhappy - because such 'sweetheart deals' for their members would become a thing of the past. There are many, many other examples in US politics. To name just a few:

There are any number of similar stories out there. Do an Internet search on the terms "union", "pension" and "scandal" and see for yourself. Sounds like a rather corrupt version of the so-called "American Dream", doesn't it? And we, the taxpayers of America, end up on the hook for it all . . .


"The 40 Best Protest Signs of 2011"

That's the title of an article over at Buzzfeed. Here are a few examples from their selection.

There are many more at the link. Amusing reading.


The "Flash Crash" threatens to return

A few months ago we examined the impact of automated, computerized trading systems on stock exchanges around the world. A commentator noted at the time:

The digitised financial machine does not work for us: we work for the machine. And I do not believe that our political leaders have the faintest idea how to bring it under control.

Now CNBC warns that such computer systems risk bringing down the entire global stock market trading system. Here's an excerpt from their article.

... could 2012 produce a repeat of the “flash crash”, the bizarre episode that hit the U.S. equity markets back on May 6 2010?

Think about it for a moment. A full 18 months have passed since the strange episode that caused the Dow Jones to tumble 650 points in half an hour, wiping $850 billion off share prices, before rebounding. Since then, the issue has faded from view amid the eurozone drama.

But to this day, nobody has fully explained what really happened on May 6. Nor is there any evidence that the fundamental problems that caused the flash crash have been resolved. That leaves some scientists fearing that not only is a repeat of that flash crash possible, but it is probable — and next time round, it could be even more damaging.

To understand this, take a look at a fascinating transatlantic research paper published by the Bank for International Settlements. One of the paper’s co-authors is Dave Cliff, formerly a financial trader who now runs the UK government’s Large-Scale Complex Information Technology Systems project, an endeavour that analyses the risks of IT systems in sectors including healthcare, nuclear energy and finance. The other, Linda Northrop, runs a similar project at Carnegie Mellon University, which was initiated a decade ago by the US military.

. . .

... these researchers believe that the flash crash was not an isolated event; on the contrary, it was entirely predictable given how IT systems have proliferated to create a system of systems that is now interacting in unpredictable ways that regulators and investors cannot comprehend, far less control.

. . .

... the risks and near misses are rising all the time. Take May 2010. At the time, the wild gyrations in prices were deemed shocking. However, Cliff and Northrop think it could have been dramatically worse: if the systems failure had been a little later that day, prices would not have had a chance to recover before the US market’s close, which would have caused carnage when Asian and European markets opened.

“The true nightmare scenario would have been if the crash’s 600-point down-spike, the trillion-dollar write-off, had occurred immediately before [US] market close,” they note. “The only reason that this sequence of events was not triggered was down to mere lucky timing. . . the world’s financial system dodged a bullet.”

And such luck may not be repeated.

There's more at the link.

As if we didn't have enough economic bad news to worry about already, what with out-of-control deficit spending by the US government, the Euro crisis on the other side of the Atlantic, and China's economy showing signs of hitting the wall as well! Oh, well . . . Happy New Year to all investors, I guess!


Rule Four, people - RULE FOUR!!!

An article at a Swedish news site reminded me forcefully - yet again - of the wisdom of the late Col. Jeff Cooper and his Four Rules of Firearm Safety.

A Swedish elk hunter who felled her first elk with a single shot that passed through the animal only to hit and then kill a cross-country skier, has been acquitted of manslaughter charges by the district court in Växjö in central Sweden.

The 32-year-old hunter had held her license for six years when her first elk was felled in December 2010 with a single shot, a shot with tragic consequences.

Just 60 metres beyond the felled beast lay a 71 year-old cross-country skier in the snow in Ljungby, in southern Sweden.

The bullet which killed the elk had continued, hitting the skier and killing him instantly.

”We tried to resuscitate him, but it was impossible,” said the woman to the police.

. . .

A forensic analyst wrote in his report that ”bullets travelling through felled animals are probably not that uncommon but the chances of something like this happening are extremely slim”, reported Aftonbladet after the incident.

Henrik Barnekow, a hunting consultant at the Swedish Hunters Association (Svenska Jägareförbundet) in Kristianstad, told TT at the time that it is not uncommon for a shot to pass through an elk or any other game.

There's more at the link.

Col. Cooper's Fourth Rule of firearms safety warns us to 'Identify your target, and what is behind it'. If the shooter had been aware of the presence of the skier, I'm sure she wouldn't have pulled the trigger, or would have waited until her line of fire was clear of such potential hazards; but she wasn't, and she didn't. Tragedy resulted.

This is also why, when I train people in defensive firearms use, I warn them not to use a firearm chambered for a cartridge too powerful for their surroundings. For example, a .44 Magnum handgun is ideal for open rural terrain, where long-distance shots are more likely, or where dangerous animals are more likely to be encountered. If it over-penetrates one's target, there's plenty of wide open space for the bullet to fall to earth. However, to use the same cartridge for self-defense in an urban environment is hazardous in the extreme. Its bullet is much more likely to over-penetrate the human body, and go on to endanger others; it can shoot through a frame-and-siding dwelling from one side to the other (including several interior walls), and still retain enough energy to kill or injure someone on the far side of the house; and in a confined space such as a room, its extremely loud report has an effect not unlike a stun grenade. It's likely to cause injury to the auditory system of anyone nearby (including the shooter).

In this case, hunting in open country, the shooter used a cartridge powerful enough to take her chosen prey. Unfortunately, the power needed to take that particular animal also gave the bullet enough power to over-penetrate its target and kill an innocent bystander. It's not the first time that's happened, and it likely won't be the last . . . unless and until we can get everyone to observe the Four Rules as if they were Divine revelation incarnate.


Thursday, December 29, 2011

This made me laugh out loud!

I found this video clip irresistible. It shows a young cat attacking a musical greeting card, which is producing cat-like sounds.

I can't help wondering what the card is saying in cat language, to elicit such an enthusiastic and aggressive response from the kitten. Judging by the flying leap in the second attack, the card's probably insulting his mother, or something like that . . .


I guess they hoped we wouldn't notice . . .

Perhaps the politicians thought journalists would be asleep, or that the rest of us would be so preoccupied with Christmas celebrations that we'd miss the numbers . . . but, fortunately for us, the Washington Post didn't.

Releasing information on the Friday before a big holiday is a time-tested way to bury bad news. So when the Government Accountability Office’s fiscal 2011 financial statements for the federal government were released on the Friday before Christmas, it made sense to read them closely.

Since 1997, the United States has been a rare example of a government willing to publish financial statements using accrual accounting, which counts the cost of promises made as well as cash paid out. And the GAO’s professionalism over the years has won it a reputation for impartiality and effectiveness.

That professionalism is evident in the GAO analysis of the net present value of the Social Security and Medicare promises Washington has made to Americans. “Net present value” means the total that would have to be set aside today to pay the costs of these programs in the future. The government puts these numbers in appendices, rather than in headlines. But the costs are real.

In fiscal 2011, the cost of the promises grew from $30.9 trillion to $33.8 trillion. To put that in context, consider that the total value of companies traded on U.S. stock markets is $13.1 trillion, based on the Wilshire 5000 index, and the value of the equity in U.S. taxpayers’ homes, according to Freddie Mac, is $6.2 trillion. Said another way, there is not enough wealth in America to meet those promises.

. . .

The cost would have been a lot worse but for two assumptions that the GAO found questionable.

First, Medicare’s cost projections assume legally required decreases in reimbursement rates to doctors that Congress has ignored for years — the so-called doc fix. For these projections to be realized, Congress would have to abide by its own cost controls and allow an immediate 27 percent cut to doctors’ rates, which is very unlikely.

Second, the Medicare projections assume that the 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA) will reduce health-care cost growth by 1.1 percent per year, despite doubts voiced by the GAO and a panel appointed by the Medicare board of trustees.

The panel and the GAO recommended including an alternate scenario in the year-end figures, in which the doc fix continues and the ACA cost reductions do not materialize. The result is a $12.4 trillion increase in the cost of the promises, to more than $46 trillion. Given Congress’s history with the doc fix, and the general paralysis in Washington, it’s hard to argue with the GAO’s lack of confidence in Congress’s ability to honor its own cost controls.

There's more at the link. Bold print is my emphasis.

Folks, all those glowing promises that politicians - from both sides of the aisle - have made to us for years and years about how Social Security would be there for us, and Medicare/Medicaid would pay for our health care . . . they were, and are, all lies. There isn't enough money in this country to pay for all those promises - not even for a third of them. Don't look for the check in the mail, because it's not coming.

If you don't like being lied to in this way, please remember these numbers when you vote in November 2012 - and throw out any politician, from either party, who tries to continue lying to you about them!


Looks like 'tunnel rats' were part of ancient warfare, too

I'm sure many readers are familiar with the accounts of so-called 'tunnel rats' during the Vietnam War (particularly in the infamous Cu Chi tunnels). In more recent years, their successors have been hard at it in the karez irrigation tunnels, or qanats, of Afghanistan.

I'd known that tunnel warfare dates back to medieval siege warfare, where a besieging force would try to undermine the walls of a castle by burrowing beneath them. The same technique was used in World War I to plant mines beneath enemy defenses, which sometimes led to counter-tunnels and fierce fights far below ground between the tunnelers of both sides. However, I've now learned that tunnel warfare dates back much further than even the medieval period. Reuters reports:

Even with the proper equipment and intestinal fortitude, it is easy to lose your cool when crawling through the expansive ancient tunnel systems dug by Jewish rebels to fight the Roman Empire.

The hundreds of hideouts, ranging from just a few meters deep to seemingly unending labyrinths, are popular among Israeli archaeologists and adventurers. But the subterranean mazes, which date back as early as the first century B.C., are virtually unknown to foreigners.

. . .

The foothills of Jerusalem around the ancient city of Beit Guvrin are like an ant farm and best tell the story of the guerrilla tactics used in the Bar Kochba rebellion. The rebel strategy worked for a while, but the Romans eventually defeated them.

Earlier caves have been found farther north in the Galilee, where team members were called to explore a tunnel system found just a few months ago. Archaeologists had uncovered what they thought was a standard, 8-meter-deep (26-foot-deep) water cistern, but later noticed it had narrow crawlspaces shooting off its base.

The team rappelled to the lower level and became the first people in 2,000 years to tread there. With a metal detector and laser measurer, they spent hours mapping just a fraction of the tunnels.

Researchers have also mapped many of the nearby cavern hideouts that dot the cliff side of Mount Arbel overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Roman historian Josephus described in his writings how King Herod lowered his men in chests from the cliff to the cave openings and, using fire, overtook the rebels.

There's more at the link. Wikipedia also has an interesting article on tunnel warfare.

I have this eerie mental picture of a Vietnam-era 'tunnel rat' meeting up, somewhere in the hereafter, with a Roman legionary who'd had the same job fighting Jewish rebels. I can just see the two of them exchanging war stories over a glass or three of whatever the Heavenly pubs serve under such circumstances!


Doofus Of The Day #558

Received via e-mail, reportedly found in a newspaper in Scotland:

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you a quintessential Doofus!


A great example of making more with less

I was very interested to read an article in the Daily Mail about an English couple who've refurbished their apartment using reclaimed, recycled and salvaged goods. In the process, they've paid about $4,500 for goods and articles worth well over $50,000 - a bargain in anyone's language!

The couple have turned their hard-won skills into a joint business venture. The article appears to be as much publicity for their business as a news item, but in view of my own background (of which more below), I nevertheless enjoyed it. Here's an excerpt.

In these belt-tightening times, it always helps to shop around to get the best deal.

But one couple have taken that philosophy to the extreme by completely transforming their home simply with reclaimed goods.

Kresse Wesling and James Henrit bought their two-bedroom flat last year when it was little more than a shell.

Trawling charity shops and tips, and searching on websites Gumtree, Freecycle and eBay, the pair managed to create an incredible home from items no-one wanted.

What would have cost about £35,000 using new materials has been done for under £3,000 - albeit with thousands of man-hours.

Their bed is made from scaffold poles, the kitchen is created from reclaimed wood and granite and the tiles in their hallway are made from old firemen’s hoses.

. . .

They fashioned granite sideboards in the kitchen, which would usually would cost £500-600, for nothing by sourcing unwanted offcuts.

They also paid nothing for the large ceramic kitchen sink, of which similar styles can fetch anywhere up to £200 new.

A disused work bench has been turned into a dining table and other furniture including the sink has been found at dumps and transformed into spectacular pieces.

Much of the furniture was made from pallet wood and a painting hanging in their front room was created by a friend.

The couple call their technique 'upcycling' - taking quality goods nobody wants or is selling cheaply and making them like new.

A bathroom mirror was picked up from a firm that makes them and was about to be thrown out because it was not quite perfect.

Cutlery and crockery was found in charity shops and the bathroom tiles were made from reclaimed Welsh slate.

Their TV was a present and their range and fridge were snapped up from websites offering second-hand goods.

The website Freecycle provided them with a Chesterfield sofa and carpets were provided by Kresse’s collection of old Tibetan rugs.

The couple, from Bournemouth, Dorset, have also turned their passion into their living and now run a company - Elvis and Kresse - that sells upcycled goods.

There's more at the link, including many more pictures of their handiwork - inspirational for do-it-yourselfers.

The article reminded me of my parents, who (when I was only a few years old) bought a turn-of-the-century house in Cape Town, South Africa. It was a two-story home in rather dilapidated condition, with about a dozen rooms plus an outbuilding. They paid £6,000 for it (then the equivalent of about US $17,000). Over the next few years, Dad restored the place using his own skills, tools and labor, spending another £6,000 or so in the process. Their total investment was thus the equivalent of about US $34,000. When they sold the place, almost two decades later, it fetched the equivalent of about $55,000 - not a bad return on their investment, for those days.

As a youngster, I 'helped' Dad by handing him tools, nails and screws, and watching as he worked on various and sundry repair and restoration projects. I learned a lot from his example, and later used what he taught me to renovate an old, dilapidated 2,000-square-foot four-bedroom apartment in Johannesburg. I'd been able to buy it very cheaply due to its run-down condition, and saved a lot of money during renovations by not using professional labor or services, and avoiding buying new components. I sourced many things I needed (e.g. carpet tiles, wall light fittings, etc.) from dumps or outlets for used building components. It's amazing what one can accomplish with a little sweat, elbow-grease and careful scrounging.

I wish more couples would do that together in these difficult times. Not only would they save a lot of money, the shared labor might (should!) help to draw them closer together. That's an all-round win in my book!


Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The MF Global bankruptcy - institutionalized theft?

We've spoken before about the MF Global bankruptcy in these pages. Now, Gonzalo Lira identifies what may be the single most important - and most dangerous - aspect of this bankruptcy, and asks: "A Run On The Global Banking System—How Close Are We?" Here's an excerpt.

Brokerage firms hold clients’ money in what are known as segregated accounts. This is the money that brokerage firms hold for when a customer makes a trade. If a brokerage firm goes bankrupt, these monies are never touched — because they never belonged to the firm, and thus are not part of its assets.

Think of segregated accounts as if they were the content in a safety deposit box: The bank owns the vault — but it doesn’t own the content of the safety deposit boxes inside the vault. If the bank goes broke, the customers who stored their jewelry and pornographic diaries in the safe deposit boxes don’t lose a thing. The bank is just a steward of those assets — just as a brokerage firm is the steward of those customers’ segregated accounts.

But when MF Global went bankrupt, these segregated accounts — that is, the content of those safe deposit boxes — were taken away from their rightful owners — that is, MF Global’s customers — and then used to pay off other creditors: That is, JPMorgan.

. . .

In the case of MF Global, what should have happened was for all the customers to get their money first. Then everyone else — including JPMorgan — would have picked over the remaining scraps. And the monies MF Global had already pledged to JPMorgan? They call it clawback for a reason.

The Chicago Mercantile Exchange, which handled the bankruptcy, should have done this — but instead, the Merc was more concerned with making JPMorgan whole than with protecting the money that rightfully belonged to MF Global’s 40,000 customers.

Thus these 40,000 MF Global customers had their money stolen — there’s no polite way to characterize what happened. And this theft was not carried out by MF Global — it was carried out by the authorities who were charged with handling the firm’s bankruptcy.

These 40,000 customers were not Big Money types — they were farmers who had accounts to hedge their crops, individuals owning gold (like Gerald Celente — here’s his account of what happened to him) — in short, ordinary investors. Ordinary people — and they got screwed by the regulators, for the sake of protecting JPMorgan and other big fry who had exposure to MF Global.

That, in a nutshell, is what happened.

Now, what does this mean?

It means that nobody’s money is safe. It means that regulators care more about protecting the so-called “Systemically Important Financial Institutions” than about protecting Ordinary Joe investors. It means that, when crunchtime comes, central banks and government regulators will allow SIFI’s to get better, and let the Ordinary Joes get f****d.

. . .

As I write this, a lot of investors whom I know personally — who are sophisticated, wealthy, and not at all the paranoid type — are quietly pulling their money out of all brokerage firms, all banks, all equity firms. They are quietly trading out of their paper assets and going into the actual, physical asset.

Note that they’re not trading into the asset — they’re simply exchanging their paper-asset for the real thing.

Why? MF Global.

“The MF Global scandal has made it clear that the integrity of the system has disappeared,” said a good friend of mine, Tuur Demeester, who runs Macrotrends, a Dutch-language newsletter out of Brugge. “The banks are insolvent, the governments are insolvent, and all that’s left is for the people to realize what’s going on — and that will start a panic.”

He hit it on the head: Some of the more sophisticated people — like Tuur, like some of my acquaintances, (like myself, frankly) — have realized that the MF Global scandal means that there is no safety for any paper investment: The integrity of the systems has been completely shattered. If in the face of one medium-sized brokerage firm going under, the regulators will openly allow ordinary people to be ripped off for the sake of protecting the so-called “Systemically Important Financial Institutions” — in this case JPMorgan — what will happen if there is a system-wide run? What if two or three MF Globals happen simultaneously?

Will they protect the citizens’ money? Or will they protect the “Systemically Important Financial Institutions”?

I think we know the answer.

There's more at the link. Bold print is my emphasis.

This is a critically important article, one I can't recommend too strongly that you read in full. If Mr. Lira is correct, we can no longer trust any of our financial authorities. Under those circumstances, a wise man will get his money out of the global banking system as fast as possible, and into hard assets that he physically controls! I'm not a wealthy man, and don't have enough investments to make that necessary: but if any of my readers do, I most strongly suggest they read Mr. Lira's article in full, then act upon it - now.


The hazards of mowing grass near crocodiles!

It seems an Australian saltwater crocodile found a new toy. The Telegraph reports:

A giant saltwater crocodile named Elvis with an apparent affinity for household machinery charged at an Australian reptile park worker before stealing his lawn mower.

Tim Faulkner, operations manager at the Australian Reptile Park, north of Sydney, was one of three workers tending to the lawn in Elvis's enclosure when he heard reptile keeper Billy Collett let out a yelp. Mr Faulkner looked up to see the 16-foot, 1,100-pound crocodile lunging out of its lagoon at Mr Collett, who warded the creature off with his mower.

"Before we knew it, the croc had the mower above his head," Mr Faulkner said. "He got his jaws around the top of the mower and picked it up and took it underwater with him."

The workers quickly left the enclosure. Elvis, meanwhile, showed no signs of relinquishing his new toy and sat guarding it closely all morning.

Eventually, Mr Faulkner realised he had no other choice but to go back in after the mower.

Mr Collett lured Elvis to the opposite end of the lagoon with a heaping helping of kangaroo meat while Mr Faulkner plunged, fully clothed, into the water. Before grabbing the mower, however, he had to search the bottom of the lagoon for two 3-inch teeth Elvis lost during the encounter. He quickly found them and escaped from the pool, unharmed and with mower in tow.

Though many may question the wisdom of going after a couple of teeth with a massive crocodile lurking just feet away, Mr Faulkner said finding them was critical. "They clog up the filter systems," he said.

And, perhaps more important, he said, "They're a nice souvenir."

There's more at the link.

EDITED TO ADD: Here's a video report about the incident.

Considering that saltwater crocodiles were responsible for what may be the single largest death toll in history wrought by animals on humans during the Battle of Ramree Island in World War II, I don't think I'd have been willing to mow the grass in their vicinity in the first place!


"When Ticks Outnumber Dogs"

That's the title of a very thought-provoking article by Barry Ferguson at Financial Sense, analyzing the current political and economic environment. Here's an excerpt.

Ticks are parasitic blood sucking arachnids. Their existence is dependent upon latching on to another animal with a blood circulation. We humans can be targets but our dog friends are especially vulnerable to attack. Ticks find a victim, burrow into the epidermis, suck until they are engorged, drop off, digest, and repeat. This is now the story of our existence as it pertains to our governments. We are the dog. They are the tick. There are more of them than us. Their goal is to bleed us dry. There is now an adversarial relationship between the governed and the governors.

That may sound harsh but consider this. Personally, I’m not the least bit afraid of the Taliban. I’m not the least bit afraid of Al-Qaeda. I’m not afraid of any Iranian citizen or Afghan citizen or any other citizen of the world. I’m not afraid to fly on an airplane anywhere absent all security measures. However, I am afraid of the US government. Check that, I am terrified of agents of the current regime. I am terrified of the SEC and the IRS. Since members of Congress are passing new legislation to give the military the right to imprison me without due process, legal representation, or charge, I am becoming terrified of the US military. As Thomas Jefferson once said, ‘When the government is fearful of the people, you have liberty. When the people are fearful of the government, you have tyranny.’

. . .

Congress just passed the National Defense Authorization Bill by a 93 - 7 vote. Bush III (or the guy that sleeps in the White House) will no doubt sign it because his main goal apparently is to anull the US Constitution. The Constitution used to be the law of our land in the US and it had a little clause known as the Fifth Amendment. Basically this part of the document gave us all the right to legal representation if accused of an offense. That right has now been erased by the new law that says the military can be used to arrest us, hold us, imprison us, move us to any location in the world, keep us forever, and deny us any legal representation. The traitors in Congress just voted to render us subjects to the rule of the elite. As always, the honorable Mr. Ron Paul was one of the few elected representatives that actually tried to represent us with his courageous ‘Nay’ vote. The rest of them just put a knife in our back. The ticks have penetrated the epidermis. The blood is now flowing from us to them.

. . .

Ticks need dogs. Dogs don’t need ticks. The ticks need to convince the dogs to allow the tick population to expand. The ticks need to convince the dogs to keep walking down the same trails so the ticks can have easy access to their prey. The threat of universally scorned boogeymen, natural catastrophes, and threats of financial collapse are all central to the argument of increasing the tick population. After all, the ticks don’t add anything to the world of the dogs. The ticks have to live off the dogs. Therefore, the ticks must convince the dogs that regulating the fields in which the dogs play is best for the dogs.

. . .

Dogs fetch and play. Ticks just suck.

There's more at the link. Bold print is my emphasis. Highly recommended reading - particularly with an election year coming up!

You really should read the whole thing. It's worth it.


"They'd rather have a pong than a bong"

To each his own, I guess . . . The Daily Mail reports:

A thick layer of pig dung spread across a forest floor has put a stop to youths using an area of woodland as a drink and drugs den.

The unusual, and innovative, approach was taken in Middlesbrough after elderly residents complained about the behaviour of youths in nearby woods.

After the pig manure was put in place pensioners told the council there was 'a slight whiff' but that they would rather have 'a pong than a bong'.

There's more at the link.

I guess the technique relies on the same basic principle as playing classical music to combat anti-social behavior by teens outside shopping malls - only this application of it is, shall we say, olfactory rather than auditory in its deterrent effect?


Around the blogs

There are lots of good blog posts to recommend this week. Let's start with two essays by Ken Carroll, who blogs at Below The Gnat Line. He examines the issue of voter fraud, and demonstrates how arguments against the requirement for photo ID when voting are spurious.

Old NFO points out that you might be an Occupier, if . . . In similar vein, BigFurHat, one of the bloggers at I Own The World, provides a ghastly list of Tweeted complaints about Christmas presents from people he regards as likely candidates to become Occupy protesters. The complaints themselves are sickening, but the comments from readers make more interesting reading.

The Silicon Graybeard asks, 'Could the US Return to a Gold Standard?' Here's an excerpt.

It has been said that an ounce of gold buys today about what it did at any point in the past. Stephen Harmston, former economist at Bannock Consulting, wrote that “across 2,500 years, gold has retained its purchasing power, relative to bread at least” which is seemingly proved when one considers that “It is said that an ounce of gold bought 350 loaves of bread in the time of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, who died in 562 BC” which is roughly what it buys today, a stretch of 2,500 years. With some judicious selection of the exact brand of bread, you get remarkably close to 350 loaves (and I'm sure there was some variation in what a loaf of bread cost even in King N's day). Likewise, you'll hear that an ounce of gold would buy a good toga and sandals in pre-Christian Rome, and buys a well-tailored suit and shoes today, or you'll hear that a $20 gold piece bought an 1851 Colt Single Action Army revolver, and today buys a good grade 1911. The point of all of these is that the price of gold is a standard by which other things can be measured.

There's more at the link. I don't think it's likely to happen, but he makes some very interesting arguments as to why it should at least be considered.

The Daily Bayonet offers 'Everything you ever needed to know about man-made global warming in one sentence and a graph'. He's right!

CDR Salamander offers links to five free e-books that should be in everyone's naval and military history library. I agree with his selection, although I'd have a heck of a job stopping at only five such books! I'll have to make my own list, and offer it here. One more job for the 'To Do' list . . .

I'm linking to it a bit late, but nevertheless, Merlin offers an amusing perspective on how to cut down your Christmas tree. It's enough to warm the cockles of a veteran's heart!

The indispensable Al Fin points out the inevitable consequences of demographic collapse, as we're seeing in countries around the world. He speaks truth. We should listen.

On politics, there are three very good essays to consider this week. First, Rev. Paul challenges us to understand the threats to freedom currently confronting us.

Every year ... every day ... comes that ever-tightening grip. Another indignity at the airport, and then on the highways ... and soon, coming to a mall or public building near you. Another tax, another law treating you like a child - all wrapped up in diapers from birth to death, just passed with smiles all around by your ever-so-gracious masters in Washington ... all for your own good.

Frank W. James is fed up with politics, and expresses his distaste in his own inimitable way.

I posted awhile back I was tired of politics, but life currently is very much like trying to transit across a feed lot while trying hard to not step in the shit. It's unavoidable. Everyone is talking, asking or emailing you something about some aspect of the political candidates and/or their parties. And like the stuff on the bottom of your boots after you get across that feed lot, it's all very distasteful.

Morgan K. Freeberg asserts that liberal agitation over Christmas is, in fact, symptomatic of their attitude towards politics and government as a whole. I'm going to quote from his essay at some length.

The driving desire is one of denying individual human achievement. Nothing is more frightening to a true progressive than the idea of some guy going into a garage, or abandoned barn, and fiddling around with something that then takes on a life of its own. Whether that something is a steam engine, or an Apple computer, or a light bulb, or a Frankenstein monster, or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. This idea just scares the hell out of them. If it comes from the labors of an identifiable individual, then it comes from that individual’s brain. That, in turn, means the individual had the potential all by himself…and that, in turn, means we all do.

This is the true reason why they loathe God. The idea of God is an idea of purpose: We are here for some established function. It may very well be that this function is nothing more than an experiment. Maybe God is trying to build His own Internet — or climate model? But even an exploratory function is still a function, and this scares them silly.

They feel useless. So they don’t want anyone else to escape uselessness. Therefore, any decision worth making that has an actual impact on something, has to be made by a committee…a nice, safe, anonymous committee full of people who will never be personally acquainted by the liberal who is so scared of all this. Either a committee, or a super-wonderful demigod like Barack Obama, who, again, will never become a personal acquaintance of the liberal. Oh, maybe the Replacement Jesus will call on them during a town hall meeting to ask a question…or, He’ll have dinner with them to thank them for their five dollar donation…

…but the liberal won’t ever have to be personally associated with a decision about something that has a real lasting impact. Neither will anybody with whom the liberal identifies, on any personal level. We’re all just — here. Doing our thing. Living, eating, fornicating, crapping, dying, like domestic pets.

No real accountability for judgments made. No decisions that really mean anything, coming from any of us.

That’s the real goal. That’s why they like government. All decisions made, are announced in passive voice: “It was the decision that…the feeling was…the consensus was…” Nothing scares them batshit crazy so much as an individual protagonist calling a shot, and sinking the right ball in the right pocket. That would mean anyone else who wants to, could do the same thing. This just rattles them right down to the marrow of their bones. That is what makes them liberals.

There's more at the link. I can't agree with all his points, but he certainly makes me think! Recommended reading.

Finally, on a more sobering note, the Electronic Frontier Foundation points out that bloggers in various nations are facing arrest, detention, even torture from their own governments. It suggests a range of measures such bloggers can take to create a contingency plan, as much for their own safety as for the preservation of their work. For those of us who blog under more benign political, social and economic conditions, this is a worthwhile reminder of how fortunate and blessed we are . . .


Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Wingsuiters at it again - in formation!

The video clip below is an excerpt from a forthcoming documentary on wingsuit flying and BASE jumping. It's titled 'The Need 4 Speed: Mountain Carving'.

I still say they're crazy!


Cutting the lawyers out of the legal equation?

I'm intrigued by a California woman's decision to sue a motor vehicle manufacturer in the Small Claims Court, rather than follow the 'traditional' route of participating in a class action lawsuit. The Los Angeles Times reports:

Heather Peters is an angry consumer who knows she has little chance of winning a war with Honda Motor Co. and its army of high-priced lawyers.

The Los Angeles resident is miffed that her 2006 Honda Civic hybrid doesn't get its claimed fuel economy. And she isn't satisfied with a proposed class-action lawsuit settlement that would give trial lawyers $8.5 million while Civic owners would get as little as $100 and rebate coupons for the purchase of a new vehicle.

But Peters believes that she found a venue where she can win justice and where Honda can't spend a single dollar on legal help.

On Jan. 3 she'll take her case to Small Claims Court in Torrance, where California law prohibits Honda from bringing an attorney. She's asking for the maximum of $10,000 to compensate her for spending much more on gasoline than expected. Honda said the Civic would get about 50 miles per gallon, but because of technical problems the car gets closer to 30 mpg.

What's more, Peters is using urging Honda owners across the country to do the same. Peters' website and a DontSettleWithHonda Twitter account include a link to state-by-state instructions for filing these lawsuits, which have low fees and minimal paperwork. Honda sold about 200,000 of the hybrids over a six-year period, and because of resales, as many as 500,000 people are eligible to file claims against Honda.

"I want them to know they can file in Small Claims Court and that it is not so scary," Peters said.

If she's successful in getting others to follow her example, Peters could inspire a whole new litigation strategy in the auto industry and other businesses. Working together but filing lawsuits independently, consumers could force companies to go mano a mano with individual plaintiffs in far-flung courtrooms nationwide.

Call it a small-claims flash mob.

There's more at the link. Bold print is my emphasis.

One of my biggest objections to so-called 'class action' lawsuits is that the lawyers involved typically pocket enormous sums of money, while the members of the 'class' they represent usually get much smaller sums, frequently not enough to fully compensate them for their losses. Also, the terms of the settlement frequently give cash to the lawyers, but settlements in kind, not in cash, to the members of the 'class' (as mentioned above, where the major element of the settlement would be rebate coupons towards the purchase of another Honda - if you don't want to buy another Honda, the coupons are basically worthless to you).

I think Ms. Peters' approach is intriguing. Small Claims Court isn't an 'easy ride' for the plaintiff; losses still have to be proved, and accounted for, so it's not likely that there'll be a rush of fraudulent or speculative claims. However, by cutting the (very expensive) lawyers out of the loop, consumers might actually get something worthwhile for their trouble.

I'll be watching this case with great interest. I'm willing to bet that trial lawyers will, too!


A piece of aviation history is up for grabs

I've no idea how it survived, but a relic of Cold War aviation and the second generation of stealth aircraft is up for auction. It appears to be the only surviving canopy from the McDonnell Douglas/General Dynamics A-12 Avenger II strike aircraft program.

The Avenger II was under development for the US Navy and US Marine Corps from 1983-1991 before being cancelled. The aircraft never flew.

Stephen Trimble reports:

Seth Kettleman makes a living buying and selling surplus aircraft machinery on the web. In late November, a strange item popped up on an A-12 Avenger II fighter canopy. Kettleman had never heard of the A-12, but he was intrigued so he started Googling. He read that the highly classified A-12 had been canceled in 1991. He also read that the A-12 was canceled before McDonnell Douglas and General Dynamics assembled the first aircraft.

Kettleman decided it was worth a gamble, and won an online auction with a $2,300 bid.

. . .

Kettleman says: "The canopy has now been verified as authentic. It was a production unit for the A-12 Avenger II manufactured by McAir (Division of McDonnell Douglas).

The canopy must have a hundred or so individual serial numbers and manufacturing data marked on it. These numbers and individual pieces have been verified as authentic parts from the program."

Kettleman's canopy is now for sale on eBay.

There's more at the link.

Kettleman hopes to get over $600,000 for the canopy, which seems unlikely to me; but he'll probably get a lot more than his initial investment. In fact, given that this is an actual canopy assembly and not just a mockup, I imagine that Chinese and/or Russian aerospace companies might be willing to pay quite a bit to get their hands on it, in order to evaluate its stealth components and technology. One assumes there are export restrictions in place to prevent that, but who knows? They might be able to buy it through a local individual or company, then examine it within the borders of the USA, which would, of course, be entirely legal.

You can see how the canopy would have looked on the aircraft in this artist's impression of the A-12 in flight.

(Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

I'm amazed that any piece of the aircraft has survived this long. I wonder how many other bits and pieces of the A-12 might be found if one looked long and hard enough?


In memoriam: Siobhan Reynolds

I was saddened to learn that Siobhan Reynolds, a controversial activist opposed to DEA and other law enforcement clampdowns on pain management medication and those who prescribe and administer it, has died in an aircraft crash. She was a fearless campaigner, one whose advocacy will be greatly missed.

Her death is of particular interest to me because I'm one of the many who suffer from constant, incessant pain. Mine's the result of a disabling injury in 2004. I used to be on a drug 'cocktail' of three different medications to control my pain, until (after my heart attack in 2009) I had to cut back on the number of prescription medications I was taking due to negative interactions and side effects. It means that my level of pain is more elevated than before, but that's just something I've had to learn to live with. Now, I take a painkiller only when I can't stand the pain any longer.

It's amazing how many doctors are 'running scared' because of the DEA's constant monitoring of medical facilities and personnel, trying to 'catch out' those it suspects are over-prescribing narcotic pain-relievers. When I moved between states last year, I asked my new physician to re-issue my pain medication prescriptions, and was taken aback when he flatly refused to do so. He explained that, given the nit-picking strictness of drug law enforcement in my new state, it just wasn't worth the potential trouble to him and his practice to do so. He offered to refer me to a pain management specialist instead (which would, of course, involve additional expense, additional delays, and problems with my medical insurance, who'd have to be convinced that a referral to a specialist was warranted when, in my previous state of residence, my general physician had routinely renewed my pain management prescriptions on an annual basis with no difficulty whatsoever).

You can read more about the problems caused by the clash between drug legislation and pain management in a CATO Institute policy analysis, 'Treating Doctors as Drug Dealers: The DEA’s War on Prescription Painkillers'. It makes sobering reading. You can learn more about Ms. Reynolds' trials and tribulations with law enforcement over the issue in Radney Balko's tribute to her, which is well deserved. Articles on her blog give more information about the problem; and you can learn more at the Web site of Kevin P. Byers, a lawyer with whom she worked on the problem, and at the Web site of the now-defunct Pain Relief Network, an organization Ms. Reynolds founded and ran until legal issues forced its closure.

I hope others will take up the cause for which Ms. Reynolds fought so hard and so long. I'll certainly try to support it as best I can, knowing from all too bitter personal experience how important it is.


Monday, December 26, 2011

It's enough to make a man shrivel!

This advertisement for medical insurance made me laugh - even as it made me wince and cross my legs, hard!

I wonder if my medical insurance would actually cover something like that????


Doofus Of The Day #557

Today's award goes to an environmental project in Cornwall, England.

An alert has gone out for the recall of thousands of beaded bracelets sold in tourist attractions after it emerged they are made from a highly toxic seed.

The Eden Project in Cornwall, which sold 2,800 in a year, is one of 36 retailers urging customers to return the red and black wrist charms.

They are made from the Jequirity bean - a deadly seed of the plant abrus precatorius which contains the toxin abrin, a controlled substance under the Terrorism Act.

It can kill if just 3 micrograms is swallowed, 75 times smaller than a fatal dose of ricin to which it is related. It is twice as toxic as the chemical warfare agent.

The symptoms of poisoning are acute gastroenteritis with vomiting, diarrhea, shock and potentially fatal kidney failure.

People who have bought the bracelets are being urged to bag them and then wash their hands and avoid touching their eyes. They are being offered refunds by the stores.

The Eden Project in St Austell was selling the bracelets, which originated from Peru, for about a year before one of the attraction's own horticulturists spotted the poisonous seeds.

. . .

Abrus precatorius has many names around the world including Jequirity, Crab's Eye, Rosary Pea, John Crow Bead, Precatory bean, Indian Licorice, Akar Saga, Giddee Giddee or Jumbie Bead.

. . .

The Jequirity bean is commonly used in jewellery in West Africa and is thought to ward off witchcraft in the Obeah religion.

Its toxin is chemically more powerful than ricin, the poison used by the Bulgarian secret police to assassinate dissident Georgi Markov with a pellet-tipped umbrella.

There are three recorded cases of Jequirity beans killing children who swallowed them in the US, and there are cases of death by finger-prick among jewellery makers who jab themselves while boring through the seeds with needles. There is no known antidote.

There's more at the link.

Way to be environmentally conscious, guys . . . poison your supporters!


The sobering reality of 'elder abuse'

ProPublica and PBS's 'Frontline' news program have undertaken a joint investigation into allegations of neglect, assault - even murder - of senior citizens in care facilities. Their report makes very worrying reading. Here's an excerpt.

ProPublica and PBS "Frontline" have identified more than three-dozen cases in which the alleged neglect, abuse or even murder of seniors eluded authorities. But for the intervention of whistleblowers, concerned relatives and others, the truth about these deaths might never have come to light.

For more than a year, ProPublica, in concert with other news organizations, has scrutinized the nation's coroner and medical examiner offices, which are responsible for probing sudden and unusual fatalities. We found that these agencies -- hampered by chronic underfunding, a shortage of trained doctors and a lack of national standards -- have sometimes helped to send innocent people to prison and allowed killers to walk free.

. . .

Because of gaps in government data, it's impossible to say how many suspicious cases have been written off as natural fatalities. However, the limited evidence available points to a significant problem: When investigators in one jurisdiction comprehensively reviewed deaths of older people, they discovered scores of cases in which elders suffered mistreatment.

An array of systemic flaws has led to case after case being overlooked:

  • When treating physicians report that a death is natural, coroners and medical examiners almost never investigate. But doctors often get it wrong. In one 2008 study, nearly half the doctors surveyed failed to identify the correct cause of death for an elderly patient with a brain injury caused by a fall.
  • In most states, doctors can fill out a death certificate without ever seeing the body. That explains how a Pennsylvania physician said her 83-year-old patient had died of natural causes when, in fact, he'd been beaten to death by an aide. The doctor never saw the 16-inch bruise that covered the man's left side.
  • Autopsies of seniors have become increasingly rare even as the population age 65 or older has grown. Between 1972 and 2007, a government analysis found, the share of U.S. autopsies performed on seniors dropped from 37 percent to 17 percent.

Dr. Michael Dobersen, a forensic pathologist and the coroner for Arapahoe County, Colo., said he worries about suspicious deaths in nursing homes. "Sometimes, if I don't want to sleep at night, I think about all the cases that we miss," Dobersen said. "I'm afraid we're not looking very hard."

With the graying of the baby boom generation, such concerns will only grow in urgency. Within a few years, nearly one-third of all Americans will be over 60.

In a handful of locales, coroners and medical examiners have begun to view older Americans as a vulnerable population whose deaths require extra attention. Some counties have formed elder death review teams that bring special expertise to cases of possible abuse or neglect. In Arkansas, thanks to one crusading coroner, state law requires the review of all nursing-home fatalities, including those blamed on natural causes.

But those efforts are the exception. In most places, little is being done to ensure that suspicious senior deaths are being investigated.

"We're where child abuse was 30 years ago," said Dr. Kathryn Locatell, a geriatrician who specializes in diagnosing elder abuse. "I think it's ageism -- I think it boils down to that one word. We don't value old people. We don't want to think about ourselves getting old."

There's much more at the link.

With so many American families placing their older members into care facilities, in the expectation that they'll be well looked after there, this report makes extremely worrying reading. It's even more so for those approaching retirement, who must plan for their old age, and now have to worry whether or not they can trust the advertisements for facilities claiming to offer top-notch care to their customers. For someone like myself, who's partly disabled, this is an even more important consideration.

Kudos to ProPublica and Frontline for conducting this investigation. I think they've performed a valuable public service by doing so.


Colorful cows

I had no idea that painted cows were a form of cultural expression! The Daily Mail reports:

With their intricate patterns and bright colours, it is hardly surprising if these curious-looking painted bulls attract close attention.

But the reason behind their colourful hides is actually meant to ward off intruders.

Artistic residents in Jiangcheng County, Yunnan Province, China decorated their bulls for a festival, but the tradition began from a small Chinese group who believed painting their bulls would protect their village.

The Hani minority tale preached that the painted bulls would scare away tigers from wandering into their homes.

And this tradition now gives people the prefect excuse to show off their artistic talents.

Altogether 48 teams joined this year's China-Laos-Vietnam Bull Painting Festival.

There's more at the link.

I'd like to see a live cow painted up like this diagram:

That should attract tigers, never mind scare them off! It'd certainly make me hungry . . .


Feed me, Seymour!

Shades of Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors - albeit on a smaller scale (for now!). The Independent reports:

A rat-eating plant has been declared a species previously unknown to science almost seven years after it was first exhibited at the Chelsea Flower Show.

The huge "Queen of Hearts" pitcher, one of the biggest carnivorous plants ever seen – with flowers stretching 2.5 metres across – took pride of place in a display at the world's premier flower show for five years and was seen by hundreds of thousands of visitors.

It helped growers to win four gold medals from the Royal Horticultural Society, but only now has it been recognised as a new species, despite being the most photographed pitcher plant in history.

The plant has a gaping opening through which insects, small mammals and reptiles plunge into a cauldron of hydrochloric acid and enzymes which break down their bodies for the nutrients. The contents are similar to that of the human stomach.

The pitcher is about 40cm [almost 16"] long and 10cm [4"] wide, making it one of the biggest ever found. The flower is even bigger and stretches up to 2.5 metres (about 8ft) long and is thought to be the biggest belonging to a carnivorous plant.

There's more at the link.

The plant - scientific name Nepenthes Robcantleyi, the first word being its genus, the second its species (derived from the name of its discoverer, Robert Cantley) - is part of the fascinating family of Nepenthes, all carnivorous plants feeding on insects, reptiles and small mammals. There are about 130 different species in the family.

I wonder if we can breed a variety big enough to digest politicians? That might offer a novel solution to our problems in Washington DC . . .